Clarinet family

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In order from left to right: BB contrabass, EE contra-alto, B bass, E alto, B soprano
Size comparison among the A, E, and B clarinets
A group of commonly used clarinets. In order from left to right: B bass, E alto, B soprano, E soprano

The clarinet family is a musical instrument family including the well-known B clarinet, the bass clarinet, the slightly less familiar E and A clarinets and other clarinets.

Clarinets other than the standard B and A clarinets are sometimes known as harmony clarinets. However, there are many differently-pitched clarinet types, some of which are very rare. They may be grouped into sub-families, but grouping and terminology vary; the list below reflects popular usage and compares it with systems advocated by a few influential authors. See separate articles for additional details.

  • Octave clarinets — Very rare. Pitched around an octave higher than the B clarinet.
  • Soprano clarinet — The most familiar type of clarinet. Referred to as the alto in Commonwealth countries such as Canada.
    • E clarinet/E sopranino clarinet — Fairly common in the United States and western Europe; less common in eastern Europe. Referred to as the soprano in Commonwealth countries.
    • D clarinet — Rare in the United States and western Europe. Required in Molter's very early clarinet concertos.
      • Rendall lists the E and D clarinets, along with obsolete instruments in G, F, and E, as sopranino clarinets.
      • Shackleton lists the E and D clarinets, along with obsolete instruments in F, and E, as sopranino clarinets.
      • The E and D clarinets are commonly called piccolo clarinets in eastern Europe and Russia.
    • C clarinet — This instrument became practically obsolete in the orchestras of Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century. The inclusion of the C clarinet, however was not unusual in orchestral scores from the era of Haydn and Mozart right through to the early 20th century. Mahler certainly included them up until his fourth symphony. Much of the orchestral repertoire of Beethoven and Schubert requires the C clarinet. This being the case, the nineteenth century clarinetists were faced with the difficult task of maintaining and alternating between instruments in A, B and C. Since this was not always necessary or desirable for a first rate clarinetist, who could transpose easily between instruments and may not have wished to change from a warm to a cold instrument, the tendency has been to reduce, with the result that the usage of the C clarinet has gradually declined from the standard classical orchestra.
      • Recently, however, the C clarinet is enjoying a resurgence, as there is now a renewed interest in playing older works on their authentic instruments. This applies to orchestral music and also to popular folk styles such as klezmer music. At the same time there has been an innovation in Britain to use a simplified cheaper version of the C clarinet, so called clarinéo,[3] as the principal wind instrument for young learners, a position until recently, enjoyed (or suffered) by the recorder.
      • The clarinet in C is sometimes called for in clarinet choirs, often as a substitute for the oboe.
    • B clarinet — The most common type of clarinet.
    • A clarinet — Standard orchestral instrument used alongside the B soprano. It is required primarily in older, European classical music. Every serious classical clarinetist will own both a B and an A clarinet, and cases holding both instruments are common. The A clarinet is not used in band music.
    • G clarinet — Also called a "Turkish clarinet". Primarily used in certain ethnic music. This type of clarinet is rare.
      • Rendall lists the C, B, and A clarinets along with the obsolete instrument in B as sopranos, and the clarinette d'amour in A and G and the clarinet in G as obsolete altos.
      • Shackleton lists the C, B, A, and G clarinets along with obsolete instruments in B and A as sopranos, noting that the A and G often occurred as clarinette d'amour in the mid-18th century.
      • Rice classifies G clarinets with flared bells as altos, with pear- or bulb-shaped bells as clarinets d'amour.[4]
  • Basset clarinet — Essentially a soprano clarinet with a range extension to low C (written).
    • A b flat basset clarinet — Most common type.
    • Basset clarinets in C, B, and G also exist.
      • Rendall includes no basset clarinets in his classifications. Shackleton has three in his collection: Numbers 5389 (B and A set) and 5393 (in A). See Catalogue of the Sir Nicholas Shackleton Collection, Edinburgh University Collection.
  • Basset horn — Alto-to-tenor range instrument with (usually) a smaller bore than the alto clarinet, and a range extended to low (written) C.
    • F basset horn — Most common type.
      • Rendall lists basset horns in G (obsolete) and F as tenors.
      • Shackleton lists also basset horns in G and D from the 18th century.
      • Neither Rendall nor Shackleton lists A, E, or E basset horns though these apparently existed in the eighteenth century.[5][6]
  • Alto clarinet — Pitched a perfect fifth (or, rarely, a perfect fourth) lower than the B soprano clarinet.
    • E alto clarinet — Most common type. Range usually down to low E (written). Referred to as the tenor in Commonwealth countries.
      • Rendall lists the E alto and F tenor clarinets as tenors (along with the basset horns).
      • Shackleton lists the F alto clarinet as obsolete.
  • Bass clarinet — An octave below the B clarinet often with an extended low range.
    • B bass clarinet — The standard bass.
    • A bass clarinet — Very rare today, more common around 1900.
    • C bass clarinet — Obsolete. (This is incorrect. The C bass clarinet is readily available).(Bass clarinet pitched in C is obsolete, bass clarinet in Bb with an extension to low C ,which is often called Low C bass, is readily available.)
      • Rendall and Shackleton list C, B, and A; Rendall lists only C as obsolete, while Shackleton calls A "rare". Rendall groups these in baritone and bass.
  • Contra-alto clarinet — An octave below the alto clarinet.
    • EE contra-alto clarinet, also called EE contrabass clarinet.
      • Rendall lists "contrabasset-horns" in G, F, and E (none marked obsolete), grouping these in baritone and bass.
      • Shackleton lists only "E contrabass clarinet", grouping it in contrabass (pedal) clarinets.
  • Contrabass clarinet — An octave below the bass clarinet.
    • BB contrabass clarinet.
      • Rendall lists also contrabass clarinet in C as obsolete, and groups it and the BB contrabass in baritone and bass.
      • Shackleton lists only the BB contrabass, grouping it in contrabass (pedal) clarinets
  • Two larger types have been built on an experimental basis:
    • EEE octocontra-alto — An octave below the contra-alto clarinet. Only three have been built.
    • BBB octocontrabass — An octave below the contrabass clarinet. Only one was ever built.
      • Neither Rendall nor Shackleton includes these in their classifications.

The most common clarinets[edit]

  • Except for the A clarinet and the uncommon A sopranino instrument, the clarinets in standard repertoire are pitched in B or the related E. Except for the saxophone, the other commonly-used woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, English horn, bassoon) are in C (the English horn in F). However, B instruments are commonly found in the brass family.
  • There are more B clarinets in the world than all other types of clarinets combined. It is the "default" or generic clarinet. Every student begins on a B instrument.
  • Next in popularity is the A clarinet. Every professional clarinetist playing classical music has one.
  • Somewhat less common is the Bbass clarinet (older than the alto clarinet). Since about the middle of the 19th century, it has been treated by orchestral composers as an optional supplementary instrument to the standard B soprano or treble clarinet. In music since 1950 it has been used as more of a standard or core instrument in band or wind ensemble music.
  • Less common still are the E alto and soprano clarinets. The alto is seen less in classical music than the B bass. It is used most often in band or wind ensemble music.
  • Still less common are the C clarinet (not used in recent compositions) and the A sopranino. The EE contra-alto and BB contrabass clarinets are seen very infrequently. All other varieties of clarinets are only used in older music (pre-20th century).


  1. ^ F. Geoffrey Rendall. The Clarinet. Third Edition. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1971, pp. 3-4.
  2. ^ Nicholas Shackleton. "Clarinet", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 21 February 2006), (subscription access).
  3. ^ Origins of the Clarinéo,
  4. ^ Albert R. Rice. From the Clarinet D'Amour to the Contra Bass: A History of Large Size Clarinets, 1740-1860. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 9-10.
  5. ^ Lawson, Colin (Nov 1987). "The Basset Clarinet Revived". Early Music. 15 (4): 487–501. doi:10.1093/earlyj/XV.4.487.
  6. ^ Rice, Albert R. (Sep 1986). "The Clarinette d'Amour and Basset Horn". Galpin Society Journal. The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 39. 39: 97–111. doi:10.2307/842136. JSTOR 842136.